Terrance Heath

This Woman's Work

Filed By Terrance Heath | September 29, 2009 12:30 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, The Movement
Tags: feminism, gender roles, women at work

Talk about “desperate housewives.” This AlterNet article brings to mind something I’d noticed before. In even the most progressive households, the lion’s share of the housework and childcare falls to the woman.

But anyway you measure it, statistically speaking, women do about twice as much housework as men, even in relationships where the woman works outside of the home and the man doesn't.

The disparity might be fine if women benefited from it more than men. Or if, somehow, reclaiming cleaning as important women's work (without getting anything in return) advanced feminism. But in both cases, the opposite is true.

The disparity might be fine if women benefited from it more than men. Or if, somehow, reclaiming cleaning as important women's work (without getting anything in return) advanced feminism. But in both cases, the opposite is true.

Men benefit from relationships more than women, according to Michael Kimmel, author of Guyland, and professor of sociology at SUNY Stony Brook, because the current distribution of domestic labor means that when men marry, they tend to gain a chef and a laundress, among other things. Married men are happier, live longer, have lower rates of illness, and are less likely to be treated by a therapist than their unmarried brothers, but married women have lower rates of happiness than unmarried women, and more likely to need medical treatments and therapy.

Granted, we’ve come a long way from the idealized 1950s version of housework and gender roles. Though it’s argued to be a hoax, this heavily circulated “Good Wife’s Guide” is a pretty good “condensation of the worst of this particular ‘joy through subservience’ era”, as one writer at Snopes.Com described it.

It gets humorous send-ups in video.

Build your own custom video playlist at embedr.com

But it’s not exactly a thing of the past, and not exactly a laughing matter in this economy, where more women are working than men. The result is an outbreak of “housework wars” (which, in reality, probably never ended in the first place).

Finding that oomph is usually up to the mom, apparently. Although wives do half as much housework as those a generation ago, we still average 16 hours a week — four times more than our husbands, according to a study from the University of Maryland.

These numbers are based on chores that, statistically speaking, both sexes like least: cooking, cleaning, and the like. (Both spouses spend several extra hours a week on such chores as yard work and pet care, which score much higher on the enjoyability meter.)

How can you induce your partner to do more of the dirty work? How can you break the cycle of toil-and-bicker in your own home? Here, some frank, parent-tested strategies


It’s interesting, because in our house we don’t have gender-based division of labor to fall back on. That doesn’t mean we don’t have disagreements about housework. But it’s based more on personal traits than gender. (For example, as I tell the hubby, it’s not that clutter doesn’t bother me. It just bothers him sooner than it bothers me.) For the most part, who does what in our house depends on who’s free, and who prefers to do it. (Gardening, for example, I cede to him. But, I usually clean the downstairs bathroom, etc.)

Sometimes, it’s a matter of consideration. For example, I’m going to come home late tomorrow, which means the hubby will have the boys by himself tomorrow night. Thus, before I go to bed tonight, I’ll probably load and run the dishwasher, and pick up the toys, shoes, etc., scattered around the family room. So at least he can come home to an empty sink and a relatively tidy house. (It makes a difference when you’re parenting solo.)

But the article reminded me of something else. One of the reasons for the opposition to same-sex marriage is the potential of marriage equality to call gender roles more into question.

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The threat of legal same-sex marriage, then, is actually doubled. It carries one step further the progress that's lead to women no longer having to "submit to their husbands"; they might volunteer, a'la the "surrendered wife" model, but not many women have to marry and thus "submit to their husbands" as a necessity for survival. Social progress changed the status of women, and the same people who oppose same-sex marriage would like to undo that progress to whatever degree they can. Legal same-sex marriage further cements those social changes, and makes it even harder to turn back the clock.

It's no coincidence that the political forces opposed to same-sex marriage or marriage equality also oppose gender equality and advocate returning to more strictly enforced gender roles. The Institute for Progressive Christianity recently published a paper titled "The KIngdom of God and the Witness of Gay Marriage," which includes among it's premises:

1. Gay marriages demonstrate the possibility and desirability of gender equality in any marriage by modeling a relationship where the parties to the marriage do not distribute roles and responsibilities based on gender. This modeling supports the positive transformation of the curse of gender conflict, and subsequent patriarchal domination pronounced at the Fall from Paradise into gender egalitarianism .

2. Gay marriage's ascendancy and resilience in society participates in a fundamental shift of the culture's understanding of marriage. That is, marriage is being transformed from a utilitarian arraignment grounded in the idea that women are sexual property to an egalitarian life journey with a partner who one chooses to develop and share mutual love, affection, respect, and support.

... One of the most obvious issues to which gay marriage speaks is gender equality. One of the strongest and most relied upon objections to gay marriage from the Right is that it violates the concept of gender complementarity. Gender complementarity is the metaphysical claim that men's and women's social functions in the world are determined dichotomously by their biological sex, such that where men are convex women are concave.

... Undergirding the concept of gender complementarity is the assumption that men are metaphysically meant to rule over women (ideally in the spirit of love, of course) and women are metaphysically meant to serve men

... Thus, from the gender complementarian perspective, those who act as though women and men gain equal spiritual, emotional, psychological, and existential satisfaction and dignity from leading and serving, and are meant to experience both of these sides of the human psyche, are disordered, as are those who advocate this notion of equality and balance.

The possibility of gay marriage invites heterosexuals to view their intimate partners (or potential intimate partners) not through a lens of gendered otherness primarily --that is through the lens of gender complementarity-- but through the lens of sameness, that is through the lens of sharing a common human dignity, as it was in the beginning.

As much as it may seem like a tangent, the above both reinforces the relationship between sexism and homophobia, and places gay & lesbian equality in general and marriage equality specifically in the context of earlier progressive social movements, all of which -- from the abolitionist movement, to women's suffrage to the civil rights movement -- had strong foundations in moral principles; progressive moral principles like those Pitt referenced in his column.

After all, if two men can take care of children and keep a reasonably clean house, it shouldn’t be all that hard for one to do the same alongside his wife or female partner.


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I've been married to my husband for 31 years, and I can tell you that marriage needs to be redefined. (After all, the current model leads to over 50% divorce rate.) In any successful pairing, the two parties must define for themselves what constitutes success. Having a model into which you must squeeze your new relationship can be quite confining and probably disregards the gifts and inclinations of either or both parties. The "traditional" marriage is an ill-fitting off-the-rack suit that rarely makes anyone happy without tailoring. I look forward to the freedom that marriage equality will bring everyone.

BTW, that "Good Wife's Guide" got a lot of laughs from our close friends, all of whom have long marriages.

You mean I'm not supposed to be living like I'm the 1950's housewife? That's it, Jerame. No more bringing you your slippers!

Seriously though - even in gay relationships there's a divide on the "gender" roles often. As the more fey of the two of us, I get stuck with all the housework most often. He's so predictably male about it. He can vacuum or do dishes occasionally, but that's about it most of the time.